Ireland’s more progressive than the International media thinks – and not because of Leo Varadkar

Maybe it wouldn’t get under my skin so much if I’d watched in a different context. Maybe I’d shrug it off, laugh even, because I’m Irish and we are good at doing that. We have to be. We are not quite oppressed enough to Take Offence – after all, when people left Ireland in ye olden days they did not do so as slaves, merely as indentured servants, and sure we’re white! And we are modern and English-speaking and digital and forward-thinking and therefore we are completely cool with laughing at ourselves.

In an era where everything is Problematic in some regard, we are expected to be completely cool with a bit of mockery. Sure it’s grand. Sure it’s not like it’s real oppression or anything. ‘White privilege,’ American liberals bleat, many of whom would be hard-pressed to locate Ireland on a map, to know that it is not part of the United Kingdom, to understand that it is a former colony of its nearest neighbour.

There are Irish representations on TV that I adore and naturally, representations I abhor. I am a devoted Trekkie but skip past the dodgy episode of The Next Generation and the unforgiveable two dodgy episodes of Voyager when I go Netflix binging. I can forgive them, though, because Trek also gives us more than a decade of Colm Meaney as Miles O’Brien, who – much like his Deep Space Nine co-star, Alexander Siddig – manages to transcend racial stereotypes in a way that isn’t always possible in the rest of his career.

But, oh, then we have Father Ted, and Black Books, and my love for Bernard Black is so great that several of my Tumblr posts are tagged ‘bernard black is my spirit animal’, a phrase that will someday see me receiving death threats for culturally appropriating the notion of spirit animals.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt -
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, image source

And then, a couple of weeks back, I settled in to catch up on my Netflixing. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt season three arrived, and I dove into it, partly because my love for Kimmy is great and partly because I had a new book out the week after and I was in desperate need of distraction from the anxiety. It was decent – not nearly as charming as season two, but still reasonably funny. A little disjointed, maybe, and there was not nearly enough Kimmy, perhaps due to Ellie Kemper’s pregnancy, but it was pleasing and watchable.

Suddenly there was just a really weird moment where Titus got snarky about ‘the Irish’. Okay, I thought. This show is problematic in many ways – we’ve all read the thinkpieces about its portrayal of Native American culture – so this is not a big deal. And then Tina Fey’s character, hapless therapist Andrea, echoes the sentiment in a separate episode.

I recalled, vaguely, that there had been a few Irish jokes in 30 Rock, mostly centred around Alec Baldwin’s Irish-American Jack Donaghy. Out of context in Kimmy Schmidt, though, the random ‘the Irish are the worst’ felt – well – racist.

I’m uncomfortable using the word, as I should be, because there are many people of colour who would argue that intra-white racism is not even a thing. But they are mostly American and I am fairly sure the Americans haven’t noticed Ireland is an actual country and not just a haze of nineteenth-century stereotypes.

Here’s why: the moment of television that really gets under my skin. Season 2 of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which I watch after my Kimmy binge, and which features in its second episode a drinking song – complete with flat caps, old-fashioned outfits and a tin whistle. It is stage Irishness, and it’s stage Irishness used as a backdrop for a man revealing to his friends that he’s an alcoholic. Unlike the other musical allusions and parodies on the show, the joke is not so much on the character in question but on a nation used as a shorthand for addiction.

Crazy Ex-girlfriend -
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, image source

I realise, when watching this, in slight disbelief, that this will not seem offensive to Americans, even the liberal ones, because they do not realise Ireland is a real country that is not stuck in the Victorian/Famine era. For them it is not a modern place where we have the internet and smartphones and fancy coffee and even avocados. It is a place ancestors come from. It is cute.

Which is why it is so amazing, oh-em-gee, that we have ‘elected’ (no we haven’t) a gay Prime Minister (not quite yet). Look how far they’ve come! Publications that are typically lauded for smart political insights spout idiotic comments about how progressive a move this is, while we at home know perfectly well that the likely new leader of the country is much closer to Margaret Thatcher than Graham Norton.

We are the land of jokes, the land of potatoes, the land of alcoholism. We are where people come from but never go back to. We are a fuzzy-edged, sepia-tinted vision of the past. We are where Irish Americans but not actual Irish people hail from.

Well done the Irish (cute little nation that they are) on electing a gay Indian leader! (Never mind that the great architect of our nation-state was the mixed-race, foreign-born Eamon de Valera, whose illegitimate birth perhaps contributed to the sanctimonious nonsense in our constitution about the importance of the family unit and the ‘special role’ of women.) Well done, Irish people! How adorable! How progressive and radical and extraordinary for a Catholic country!

This is a statement you can only make if your view of Ireland is sepia-tinted. Varadkar is not progressive, and Ireland is not nearly as conservative as the foreign media seems to believe. On certain issues, including my pet topic of reproductive rights, we are desperately backwards, but it is clear that this stagnation is the fault of the government and not the citizens.

Leo Varadkar -
Leo Varadkar, image source

We are not all flat-capped Paddies in the pub guzzling Guinness and doing little else. When we do drink, it is more likely to be Smithwicks or a fancy IPA or a cold glass of white wine than anything else. When we do drink, we do not drink nearly as much per capita as most Eastern European countries. When we do drink, we mostly know about alcoholism, because we are not idiots, and we understand that we need to be careful. Many of us have alcoholics in our families, some who have lived and some who have died. We know. We know this is a thing.

And when we vote – which we did not do in the Fine Gael leadership election, international media –we vote with hearts and minds that are far more ‘sophisticated’ and ‘modern’ than we are given credit for. We as a population vote for marriage equality. Selected citizens vote for liberalised abortion access. We vote for the twenty-first century.

The easier media narrative is that we don’t, of course. That we are backwards and stupid and eejity. That we are not real or important enough to worry about not offending (do they even have TV there?). That we are so terribly entrenched in conservative Catholicism (when Ireland has excelled at a la carte Catholicism for decades) that the prospect of a gay leader is breathtakingly modern.

We’re a real country. We may not be perfect but our historical deference to the United States – land of Trump, land of guns, land of bigotry – is coming to a close. Ireland is a real place. Maybe you haven’t noticed. That’s okay. It doesn’t matter. We’re moving on anyway.

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